Guest Opinion: Palo Alto must close its infrastructure gap, as an investment | January 10, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 10, 2007

Guest Opinion: Palo Alto must close its infrastructure gap, as an investment

by Sanford Forte

A significant portion of the physical infrastructure that currently houses our public safety, public library and public recreation institutions is badly in need of rebuilding.

Palo Alto is at an infrastructure crossroads that will determine whether future generations are able to continue receiving optimal service delivery for tax dollars spent on such services -- all necessary for the health and growth of our vibrant community.

A recently completed Blue Ribbon Commission formed to help determine our public safety infrastructure needs has recommended that Palo Alto is in dire need of a new public safety building. Everything from the competent maintenance of trial evidence to elementary staff hygiene is compromised in the current, inadequate structure.

After almost two years of exhaustive diligence and community inputs, Palo Alto's Library Advisory Commission has concluded that our public library system's infrastructure and collections are in sore need of updating, with a special emphasis on rebuilding Mitchell Park's wholly inadequate space.

Yet another exhaustive diligence, performed by Palo Alto's Parks and Recreation Commission, has concluded that the aging Mitchell Park Recreation Center is woefully inadequate to meet Palo Alto's growing need for public recreation programming. The latter finding has recently coalesced into a forward-looking recommendation that suggests a combined Library/Community Center rebuild at Mitchell Park that would create significant, combined public service efficiencies and economies for the delivery of library, recreation, and combined cultural services.

The above infrastructure builds are necessary for the forward maintenance and sustainability of key Palo Alto services. All three should receive the fullest attention, consideration and support for funding by Palo Alto citizens.

That said, although we now better understand the need to refresh public infrastructure, we have mostly framed that need in terms of cost. This is a normal and necessary part of public diligence -- after all, we have to pay for these improvements.

But there's more at stake than upfront cost.

Given the enormous payback that we receive from public safety, public libraries and public recreation, might it be more useful to frame our discussion about these needs as investments in our future rather than as costs that will burden us?

Might it be more useful to look at the cost of NOT making these necessary investments, as an investment package that will help preserve and sustain the excellent quality of life we enjoy today? In all three cases, long-term public benefits far outweigh the upfront costs.

How much is it worth to know that our dedicated public safety officials are able to properly police our streets, properly gather and hold evidence (preventing future, costly lawsuits), guarantee public order in times of general crisis (such as disease pandemics, terrorist attacks, flooding or earthquakes), quickly dispatch help to on-demand 911 callers, physically coordinate the services necessary to help prevent crime before it happens (neighborhood watch and education), and so on?

How much is it worth to know that our library's unique and heralded branch system will have a collection sufficient to meet the needs of one of America's most educated citizenry, or that that our library will be able to serve projected gradual growth to 36,000 senior citizens within a population of 80,000-plus towards the year 2030?

What's the cost of decreasing library access when we know from good research that there is a direct correlation between libraries and school performance, libraries and future success, libraries and low crime rates, and so on.

In fact, within the last six years, no less than 23 well-designed studies have clearly shown that public libraries actually pay back a profit to municipalities, based on real benefits received for tax dollars spent.

What's the cost of not having sufficient recreation infrastructure to serve our increasingly diverse (one of three citizens in Silicon Valley is from another nation) health and recreation needs, including the many superb recreation programs that provide outlets for community gathering, education and improved physical and mental health?

The cost of building infrastructure necessary to deliver the services that we've become accustomed to -- services that we will need more of as our community grows in population and diversity -- is absolutely necessary for the continued integrity of Palo Alto as a safe community, with diverse access to information and recreation resources.

Tax dollars dedicated to delivery of essential public services that protect, educate and recreate our citizens -- making them secure in community -- are an investment in our present, and our future; an investment in our children and growing senior population; an investment in the dedicated staff we pay to deliver the best public services, because a dedicated public employee staff requires safe, sufficient infrastructure to deliver the optimal service quality that we insist on.

Sanford Forte is a member of the Palo Alto Library Advisory Commission. He can be e-mailed at